Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Can Howard Dean Save the Democrats?


Can Howard Dean Save the Democrats?

The Vermont firebrand is essentially a centristwith conviction and passion. He's an obvious choice to lead the fractured party

By Eleanor Clift

Nov. 26 - The struggle to be Democratic National Committee chair is round one of the battle for the soul of the party. The obvious choice is Howard Dean, who has the clarity of conviction and the passion that voters hunger for even if they don’t always agree with him.

Party activists around the country are furious at the Washington Democrats for blowing the election. Wresting control away from the entrenched establishment is their goal. Dean would spark a Red State rebellion within the party, but the Heartland’s leading contender, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, withdrew his name from contention after being shown numbers suggesting Dean would win.

Dean is talking to a lot of people, and what he’s telling them is that if a consensus African-American or minority candidate emerged, he would not seek the job. Clinton Labor Secretary Alexis Herman’s name surfaced, but she said she wasn’t interested, and so far nobody else has assumed the mantle. A DraftHoward.com Web site has sprung up, and a Democratic source says Dean is planning a series of speeches “to position himself as a centrist. A campaign aide with close ties to the governor protests that he “wouldn’t be positioning himself. Remember in Iowa, the nicks came from the left. Rival campaigns attacked Dean for once agreeing with Newt Gingrich that Social Security’s growth rate should be slowed, and for winning the endorsement of the National Rifle Association as Vermont’s governor.

Dean is essentially a New Democrat who happened to be against the war. Signing legislation legalizing civil unions is the only outsized liberal thing he did, and he did it reluctantly in a compromise forced by court action. Only a few staffers were present at the signing ceremony, and photographers were banned. In the heyday of his campaign, when Internet contributions were rolling in and he was the front runner, he talked about broadening the party’s base and talking to voters with Confederate decals on their pickup trucks. He should have said gun racks because his message got lost in a debate over whether a politician invoking Confederate symbols is making a racist appeal.

Democrats who have spoken with Dean say he is moving toward a decision about the DNC post. But they caution that it could go either way. Anybody who has run for president doesn’t get it out of their system fast, particularly anybody who came as close as Dean thinks he came. Deciding to lead the party would probably take Dean out of the running for the ’08 nomination. Maybe that’s why the Clintons are quietly pulling for Dean. He would be one less party favorite for Hillary to dispose of. It’s not just his own ambition that Dean is weighing. The DNC job is no nirvana. It’s a place where he could make a difference, but it’s like any other Washington bureaucracy, says a Democratic operative. “There is a huge institutional pull in the same direction‘We do it that way because we’ve always done it that way'.

Dean gave hope to Democrats around the country with his maverick campaign. It was shock therapy, and Democrats need more of it. Every four years, one or the other party is written off. But stuff happens. President Bush is not immune to the second-term woes that have afflicted other presidents. He’s got a war that isn’t going well and a borrowing binge that could spiral into a recession if our allies decide to cash in the U.S. bonds they’re holding. For all the bravado, the Bush mandate is fragile. If 70,000 votes in Ohio had gone the other way, we’d be talking about the Republican enclave in the Old Confederacy and the Rocky Mountain states, and the resurgence of Blue America.

John Kerry’s biggest problem is that he never stood for anything that was big and bold. A headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion captured the emptiness of his campaign perfectly: KERRY’S ONE-POINT PLAN FOR AMERICA: GET RID OF GEORGE BUSH.

Thomas Frank, the author of “What’s the Matter with Kansas, says the moment he knew Kerry was going to lose was when he read an article about socialites raising money for Kerry by encouraging their friends to forego buying expensive shoes and give the money to Kerry. “I tell my girls I’m investing their inheritance, said one.

“It’s like rattling their jewelry for Kerry, says Frank, whose book confronts the cultural landscape that allowed conservatives to win the heart of America. Frank was in Washington this week at a panel on how to revive progressive politics. Democrats have to give “values voters some reason to come back. In the absence of a compelling economic message from Democrats, working-class Americans, once the core of the Democratic Party, are voting Republican. “Jesus’ message wasn’t them that has gets, he says, arguing that economic populism is the only comparative advantage the Democrats have in winning over these voters.